Shifting Sands: Airbus stand-off with Qatar over A350 Flaw Escalates

The relationship between an aircraft manufacturer and its airline customer is often far deeper rooted than may first appear. While on the surface such deals may seem to be a simple example of a commercial transaction between two parties, the vendor, and the consumer, in the case of airlines it’s often a wider reflection of loyalty, diplomatic relations, and trust. 

On the outskirts of Toulouse, France in February 2018, I joined individuals from across the aviation sector to be a part of the world’s first delivery of what would become the Airbus flagship, the A350-1000 XWB. The grand affair, a black-tie gala dinner celebration for global launch customer Qatar Airways, took place at Airbus’ Delivery Centre, a private terminal on the Airbus site where factory-fresh aircraft are handed over from the manufacturer to airline customers. It’s from here Airbus jets are prepared for what’s known as the ‘delivery’, a brand-new aircraft’s journey from the factory to its airline hub. 

This specific delivery would mark a new chapter in Airbus’ history for a variety of reasons. Not only was this sought-after A350-1000 jet finally ready to enter the world of commercial service — a jet Airbus knew would shake up the long-haul market with new efficiencies and go on to replace dozens of ageing Boeing 777s worldwide — but the night would mark the end of Fabrice Brégier’s term as President of Airbus Commercial Aircraft. 

A somewhat emotional Brégier took to the podium and delivered his last speech as President of Airbus with the impressive backdrop of the first A350-1000, wearing Qatar’s longstanding livery: slate grey paint draped upon a shiny new fuselage with the famous burgundy ‘Qatar’ printed in billboard titles. As Brégier reflected on his time at Airbus and how flying had evolved over the last decade, he left Akbar Al Baker, Group CEO of Qatar Airways with a firm word of reassurance: “I’m sure that Guillaume Faury, who is taking over the responsibility of Airbus Commercial Aircraft, will continue to work with the utmost dedication to ensure that each aircraft satisfies your requirements.” With Qatar being known across the industry as a customer airline with immense attention to detail, Brégier’s words of reassurance were deliberate. 

Later that year, Guillaume Faury, around six months into his position as President Airbus Commercial Aircraft, commented on Qatar’s decision to upsize its existing A350 order, converting more from the smaller -900 to the larger -1000. “Qatar Airways is renowned for its standards of excellence, and we are pleased the A350-1000 delivers to their expectations, being the aircraft of choice to seamlessly increase capacity in unprecedented comfort on its growing long-haul routes” he said. 

The relationship between the two had been business as usual. While there were occasional bumps in the road over the prospect of supply chain delays, deliveries continued to flow from Toulouse to Doha, A350s were deployed globally across the Qatar Airways route network, and the dispatch reliability (essentially a judgement on how reliable an aircraft is based on the percentage of scheduled departures that do not incur a delay, cancellation, turn back or diversion) was considered ‘excellent’ by Qatar and almost all other A350 operators, including Finnair, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines. 

In December 2020, and in the middle of what is still an ongoing pandemic, Qatar had flown an A350 to Ireland to be painted in a special livery marking the forthcoming FIFA World Cup which the Gulf state will host in winter 2022. Once the A350 was stripped back, ‘significant abnormalities’ were found under the original paint that would lead to what has now become an unprecedented public dispute between two of the largest aviation players on Earth. It’s also led to the groundings of multiple, young long-haul jets that would otherwise be transporting passengers globally during the busy holiday rush. 

The two companies are now in a stand-off. 

On one side, Qatar Airways doesn’t believe Airbus has properly determined the root cause for the issue which has caused the fuselage on some A350s to appear almost shattered in places, exposing the under layer of expanded copper foil. A source with direct knowledge of the decision that led to the groundings explained it’s worse than many think, adding: “in some areas of these aircraft, the mesh has expanded areas of nothing, leaving the outer carbon-fibre fuselage totally exposed.”

Qatar’s national carrier has now grounded 21 of its 53 A350 jets, on the orders of its aviation regulator, the state’s civil aviation authority. The airline has another 23 on order from Airbus but has suspended further deliveries as the dispute rolls on.

Airbus insist there is no risk to the A350’s safety. The manufacturer has consistently maintained that the surface-degradation issues are non-structural, an assessment that has been backed by the EU Aviation Safety Agency.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a preliminary warning that patches of the anti-lightning system may have been poorly fitted on over a dozen Airbus A350 jets after American carrier Delta Air Lines revealed it also faced “paint issues”. The news caught the attention of others in the industry after months of hearing of how Qatar had found surface defects on the A350. Furthermore, at least five other airlines, including Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, have raised similar concerns since the A350 entered service, according to documents seen by Reuters. 

While Airbus says the jets are still safe to fly, Qatar Airways has called for a definitive cause to be identified and a permanent fix to be determined – one that satisfies its regulator. The airline itself is reluctant to implement short-term fixes, which are common in aviation, without a full breakdown and a clear understanding of the root cause.

The 21 A350s grounded in Doha has prompted Qatar Airways to reactivate some of its semi-retired A380 fleet, as well as A330s. Qatar is also signing agreements with other airlines to lease more aircraft to compensate for the loss of available seats as the affected A350s remain stored, several parked on a taxiway adjacent to one of the main runways at Hamad International Airport. 

Grounded A350s – Photo: Alex Macheras

In a very public deterioration of relations between Airbus and Qatar, earlier this month (December 2021) Airbus – who have long maintained the “we do not comment on the matters of our customers” line, released an eyebrow-raising statement accusing the Gulf carrier, without naming the airline, of misrepresenting the problem as a safety issue. Airbus said the A350s had been declared safe to fly by European regulators despite some “surface degradation. “The attempt by this customer to misrepresent this specific topic as an airworthiness issue represents a threat to the international protocols on safety matters,” it said.

Qatar Airways has hit back. In the latest development of the aircraft skin flaw issue, the airline released the following statement this week: “Qatar Airways has today issued legal proceedings against Airbus in the High Court in London. We have sadly failed in all our attempts to reach a constructive solution with Airbus in relation to the accelerated surface degradation condition adversely impacting the Airbus A350 aircraft. Qatar Airways has therefore been left with no alternative but to seek a rapid resolution of this dispute via the courts. Legal proceedings have commenced to ensure that Airbus will now address our legitimate concerns without further delay. We strongly believe that Airbus must undertake a thorough investigation of this condition to conclusively establish its full root cause. Without a proper understanding of the root cause of the condition, it is not possible for Qatar Airways to establish whether any proposed repair solution will rectify the underlying condition”

Following Qatar’s announcement of its decision to file a claim in London’s High Court over the unresolved matter, Airbus publicly acknowledged development, releasing a short statement the same evening which reaffirmed: “Airbus intends to vigorously defend its position.”

Airline executives are surprised at the escalations, including Airbus’ decision to be the first of the two to publicly move towards legal action, described as “an unusual move for an ordinarily diplomatic company.” One industry CEO – a supplier to both the manufacturer and to airlines including Qatar Airways – said “Faury may have to rely on Macron’s help here to broker some sort of resolution. This is not Airbus’ usual approach or style, which is quite disconcerting, and there is clearly an issue here because other airlines have quietly found the same problem on the fuselage”. French President Emmanuel Macron has been able to broker Airbus disputes in the past, including negotiating the settlement in the US-EU Boeing-Airbus subsidy row. 

Two weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron made a state visit to Qatar, meeting with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. It’s understood the Airbus-Qatar dispute was raised. Macron also expressed appreciation to Qatar for helping to organise the latest evacuation to France of more than 250 threatened Afghans. 

“French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent state visit here has reaffirmed the strength of Qatar and France’s relations in all fields” France’s Ambassador to Qatar Jean-Baptiste Faivre said. “The two heads of states discussed with friendship, affection, and frankness all issues of common interest in a privileged one-to-one exchange,” Faivre said. “His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani offered a very warm welcome to the president and his delegation” he added. “Qatar is a strategic partner of France,” the ambassador pointed out. “The president reaffirmed the historical depth of our relations, the strength of our friendship, and of our partnership.”

As both Airbus and Qatar Airways now prepare for the inevitable legal process that will follow, the industry is bracing for another dent in international air travel recovery amid the rise in the ‘Omicron’ variant of COVID19. Akbar Al Baker has said he hopes that the new coronavirus variant “will have a limited overall impact” on the industry’s recovery. Abu Dhabi based, Etihad Airways’ chief executive, Tony Douglas does not expect Omicron to have as “big an impact” on the global airline recovery as earlier variants such as Delta had. The chief executive of Scandinavian carrier SAS has described his ‘optimism’ over demand in summer 2022, but of initial uncertainty due to Omicron.

One thought on “Shifting Sands: Airbus stand-off with Qatar over A350 Flaw Escalates

  1. Is there an industry consensus for which party is more at fault than the other for this situation getting to this point? Or do both sides seem to have equal weight to their arguments.

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